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Reading Without Words – Priya Kuriyan

Design Log 24 Aug

The artist and illustrator has illustrated covers for a set of books by renowned author Ruskin Bond. We’re really keen to find out the story behind Ammachi’s Glasses, her most-recently launched wordless children’s book.

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An illustration from Ammachi’s Glasses by Priya Kuriyan

If you ask Priya Kuriyan to tell you about herself, she’s most likely to say she’s “primarily a children’s illustrator who also illustrates for editorial magazines and does work for grown-ups!”. The NID alumni recently released her first wordless book, Ammachi’s Glasses, with the support of Tulika Publishers (fun fact: Priya started her career in the late 1990s/ early 2000s with the same publisher, illustrating for the book I’m So Sleepy by Radhika Chadha, while still in college). “The book is a picture book and it chronicles a day in the life of the central character – Ammachi. On that particular day, Ammachi figures that she’s lost her glasses and ends up spending the day doing strange things because she can’t see very well. She trips over things, mistakes one thing for the other. It’s a simple story and at the end you figure out what happened to Ammachi’s Glasses!”, says Priya of the book’s storyline.

The book is set in Kerala, where the animation-graduate’s parents are from, and the central character is deeply influenced by Priya’s paternal grandmother. “I clearly remember noticing how starkly standout-ish her physical characteristics were. Even though she lived in Ranchi for a while, she always wore the same white outfit that was typical to women in Kerala, and needless to say, it stood out. I used to always say she’s like a cartoon character, wearing the same outfit so you could recognise her. And so she became this character. You could pick her out of a crowd and make stories around her.”

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Book cover of Ammachi’s Glasses for Tulika Publishers

After Priya finished the 10th grade, she spent some time staying with her grandmother during which she picked up on the little things that were characteristic of her, and that became research material for the book. “It was simple things. She used to hate our cat and there was constantly this funny banter between the two of them. One time she was trying to scare away the cat and she fell off the chair herself. All this helped me understand and form the character of Ammachi”, quips Priya. “In fact, the house in the book is very similar to the house we used to live in. Things like the vessels and other elements in the house were very local to Kerala and so a lot of my early days in the state really inspired this book.”

What’s interesting about a wordless book is “the way you interpret it is completely up to you. It doesn’t have to be one kind of story”. Because people usually expect a book to have words, it is no surprise that Priya has been asked the ‘why a wordless book?’ question several times. To which she replies, “it’s more instinctive. When you have a book with words, you look at a page and you finish reading the words and move to the next. But in a wordless book, you look at the page, take it all in and decide for yourself when to move to the next. It’s a new experience altogether. It’s a way of slowing down the entire process of going through a book and taking it in at your own pace. In some ways it is more interactive because it’s more challenging to be reading a visual than words that someone else has given you”.

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  • 5 Sketchbook
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(Top) Editorial illustrations for bbc.com on the relationship between food and Parsi names (Middle) A page from the book Princess Easy Pleasy & an illustration for Safdar Hashmi's poem Gadbad Ghotala (Bottom) Illustrations from Priya's sketchbook

In terms of the process, illustrating for children is kind of similar to illustrating for adults in that you make the same observations before you start work. However, Priya tells us, “the differences arise in what you choose to represent. I think when illustrating for children, you have to keep in mind that their experience is limited and very different from the experiences of someone who’s 25 or 30”.

For the artist, working on children’s content happened fairly effortlessly. After graduating from NID, she moved to Bombay to work with an ad film company. Post that she moved base to Delhi and started working with the Sesame Street show. “I was working with a lot of children’s content and started doing storytelling for children and illustrating children’s books on the side.” However, it was only after she quit her job and started freelancing full-time that she realised she enjoyed illustrating and wanted to make it a career. Over the years she’s worked with a majority of the publishers in India, including big names like Penguin, Scholastic, Tulika, Karadi Tales and more.

Book cover illustrations by Priya Kuriyan

She counts artists like Shaun Tan, David Wiesner, Jon Klassen, Manjula Padmanabhan, Ajit Ninan, Jayanto Banerjee and A. Roy as people she’s looked up to as a kid. “Plus, in the 80s and 90s, there was this children’s magazine titled Target which was filled with Indian content and had some of the most fantastic illustrations. It was the first time I was looking at illustrations and it stayed with me.”

But where did the idea for Ammachi’s Glasses really spark? Priya had already written one book for a company called Wonder Box – they made activity boxes and every box would have a new book, one of which was done by Priya – and knew that she wanted to write her own book soon. Around the same time, “I attended a workshop on picture books at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It was conducted by Suddhasatwa Basu, a well-known illustrator and Anushka Ravishankar, an award-winning author. And that’s where the idea came about, close-to three years ago. Over the years I worked on the book, would go on to do something else and come back to the book.The final artworks were finished in Cochin and it’s a nice feeling to finish the book in the place it’s set in”.

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An illustration from the book How Do I Look by Vaani Arora created for WonderBoxx

You can buy Ammachi’s Glasses at bookstores across the country as well as online from Tulika Publishers’ website.

Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India. 

Image source: Priya Kuriyan